THE STRIKE ZONE
Sometimes Sports, Sometimes Sportsmanship
In my years as an adult (which I still cannot believe I qualify), there are too many times when I wish I could get back on the baseball field on a regular basis and just play, whether it be an actual game or just a gentle scrimmage with friends.
In fairness, I thankfully have the ability to still do that with the advent of the adult league. But that only happens once per week between April and August, and if it rains on Sunday, you have to wait another week...which is what your body tells you to do even if you do play so it can recover!
On the other hand, I am blessed with the ability to officiate baseball games on a much more frequent basis between those months, ranging from the youngest of kids up through high school varsity (and formerly college club baseball). So I get to see the game from all angles and perspectives, complete with the enjoyment and camaraderie of being with a bunch of guys who share similar interests.
Each year, however, as we head into the late stages of summer, the television is flooded with amateur sporting events that make me pause and wonder why ESPN (or a related network) has spent the time, energy, and money to broadcast and cover such a game. The obvious answer is supply and demand mixed with massive amounts of revenue, but the deeper philosophical answer remains at large.
In the past few years, I've noticed that the level of amateur baseball televised has ranged to include college baseball, American Legion baseball, the Little League World Series, and the Cal Ripken World Series, to name a few. Although the MLB Network was formerly responsible for airing the Cal Ripken World Series, it is usually ESPN responsible for airing the other events.
In fact, you can extrapolate this argument and begin to encompass other sports at other levels. Although the argument over collegiate sports (specifically football and basketball) would be too large to encompass in scope of this discussion, you can at least cite a (now online only) network such as MSG Varsity, which televises high school sports throughout the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut region. In short, the influx of amateur sports available to viewers has increased in size at an almost proportional rate to the increase in available channels on the average cable television lineup.
Perhaps this is all just part of the scheme of the dollar. Network executives realize that they can attract more and more subscribers if they offer networks dedicated to the niche market of amateur sports. It's not a far-fetched idea when you consider the demand for college football and basketball.
Further, networks dedicated to these sports, whether professional or amateur, are constantly seeking programming to keep their network fresh and current. Professional sports networks probably don't face this issue unless their sport is out of season; the MLB Network offers constant coverage of baseball from the time Spring Training rolls around until the World Series is fully wrapped up. But what is the network supposed to televise between November and February? Well, if some interesting amateur baseball is happening somewhere in the world, it will find its way to the network to help feed the thirst for baseball during the cold winter months. Hell, I'm glued to the network during the winters when MLB sends a team of All-Stars to the Far East to play their countrymen.
And if that's the plight of a professional sports network, what is the conundrum of something like the Big Ten Network?
The long and the short of it is that we have a flooded market for sports entertainment. Whereas networks such as ESPN, MLB Network, and all other networks dedicated to professional sports are a good thing, the expansion to what we have now is practically ridiculous. No better commentary on the subject has been written than the script for the movie "Dodgeball," featuring the prominent network ESPN 8: THE OCHO!
So where does this leave us regarding amateur sports programming? We're left with every game of tournaments such as the Little League World Series being televised on the ESPN family of networks. And I'm not so sure that's a good thing.
First, let's agree that the Little League World Series itself isn't the problem. It is the national attention it receives thanks to the broadcast coverage that leaves me somewhat perplexed as to the psychological effects it can have on impressionable prepubescent boys...well, that and the fact that I really have no need to know that the favorite television show of the third baseman for Team Mexico is "Drake and Josh."
Little League in itself has its fair share of issues. For every good step it has taken, there is an equal detraction that occurs. For every new rule it implements regarding pitch count or Special Pinch Runners, there is an adult looking for ways to exploit their kids around those rules.
The same theory exists in the discussion about televising these games. By televising these games, then the loved ones of these kids who cannot travel to Williamsport, PA, can still watch their relative play baseball. The grandparents who cannot leave their home can still watch their grandson have some fun in the sun. Yet, now 12-year-old kids have to deal with the fact that they are on national television.
Maybe some kids can handle the attention. Maybe it's not fair to paint every kid with the same brush. But our society has constantly dealt with the issue of our youth wanting to grow up too fast, and we are on the crux of a significant change where youth ends earlier and earlier in a child's life.
Child beauty pageants and other exploits parents chase for their children have become so much the norm for our youth that kids don't necessarily have the chance to be a kid. (Wasn't that the motto of Chuck E. Cheese's?) Parents who have their own psychological issues (and who refuse to acknowledge them or work through them with the help of medical professionals) engage in the practice of living vicariously through their offspring, which is completely destructive to the proper development of children.
How often do kids dress in a manner that makes them think they look more "grown up," only to the dismay of their parents? As if this wasn't common enough, the trend of young girls who dress in provocative ways while under the age of thirteen is on the rise, especially when it is endorsed by the mother!
Back in the realm of sports, the opportunity for 12-year-old boys to be on national television can also lead to the opportunity to act like their big-league heroes, thinking that their poor behavior is acceptable, especially when being broadcast to the world. Perhaps Little League does what it can to curb this behavior, but there is nothing more ironic than watching a 12-year-old boy argue a call one minute, only to see him in tears the next when his team has been eliminated from the competition.
So we have to ask: why do we promote this practice as a society? Just to sell some advertising? Look, not for nothing, but I really don't need ESPN Baseball Tonight host Karl Ravech and former MLB players like Dallas Braden doing play-by-play and color analysis for a bunch of kids who shouldn't be throwing a curve ball this early in their anatomical development.
This is why I have to give credit to organizations like Babe Ruth League. Babe Ruth's younger division (for kids 12-years-old and younger) is now named Cal Ripken Baseball. (When I played in it, it was known as Bambino Baseball.) The Cal Ripken World Series is held at the Cal Ripken Baseball Complex in Aberdeen, MD, and only the championship game for the 12-year-old World Series was streamed live online this year. Ultimately, whether it be due to a lack of sponsors and revenue, or due to common sense, some people are beginning to realize that, with the advent of technology, we can make these games accessible to those who otherwise would not be able to see them, but not in a way that over-saturates the market. The grandparents can still see their grandson play without having to dump layers of anxiety and pressure on the kids.
It also makes you wonder if there is a connection between the demand for these youth sports and the demand for college athletics. Our society has a deep (and strange) demand for college football and basketball, so it's only fair to ask if there are any similarities between that demand and the viewership of events such as the Little League World Series. What fuels our praise of college sports? And what makes us determine which amateur sports are worth our attention?
The final question may lie on a path that gets debated furiously on local levels. Why do we put so much importance on these "travel teams" instead of the in-house teams that constitute our local leagues? Further, and possibly more importantly, why do the attitudes and expectations change so vigorously once we transition to the "travel level?" The Little League World Series is comprised of these exclusive teams that have to make decisions on which kids play and which kids aren't good enough to join the team. The focus is not on making sure that the kids have a good time and experience, but rather that the kids are put in the best position to win and eliminate any chance of failure. That might be a good attitude to have at a professional level (or even at a seriously competitive amateur level such as college), but when you're dealing with 12-year-old boys, do any of them really have a clue what's important in life? Do any of them know what their career path might be? Do any of them realize that there is a finite nature to life that limits them in everything they do?
Look, there are no definitive answers in this argument. We can make generalizations and propose ideas that are as gray as The Strike Zone (oh I did it again!). But what is important is that we, as a society, take a moment to realize that these are kids. If you, as an adult, don't get much enjoyment out of watching a children's movie starring the exploited stars of the Disney Channel, then why are you watching the Little League World Series?
Baseball player, umpire, coach, fan; professional musician; founder, President & CEO of The OSIP Foundation, Inc.